Choosing the Newest HHMI Investigators

In June 2012, HHMI’s scientific officers faced a mountain of applications—1,155, to be exact—from scientists eager to compete for a position as a new HHMI investigator. The Institute had announced in March that it was seeking creative researchers who were taking on challenging problems.

On May 9, 2013—less than a year after the competition began—the Institute announced its selection of 27 scientists from 19 institutions nationwide to become investigators. The group represents the top 2 percent of those who applied. When their appointments begin, they will join approximately 330 current investigators to continue HHMI’s tradition of scientific exploration and striving for excellence.

Identifying those who seemed most likely to achieve great things took three rounds of review by more than 200 distinguished scientists, including members of the Institute’s scientific advisory boards. HHMI’s scientific leaders combed through the applications and matched them with expert reviewers who were authorities on each individual’s field. After two rounds of review, HHMI invited 59 candidates to present their best work at a scientific symposium attended by a final panel of reviewers and HHMI scientific leadership.

In evaluating applicants, reviewers focused on work accomplished in the past five years. “Successful candidates are expected to be on an upward trajectory in their career, and to have a vision for what an HHMI investigatorship could help them achieve,” explains Senior Scientific Officer Barbara Graves. Eligible applicants have led an independent research program for 5 to 15 years—a career stage the Institute has identified as a time when its support can have maximum impact. Key to the process, Graves adds, is ensuring that reviewers understand HHMI’s principal of funding people, not projects. Rather than the more traditional approach of funding project-based research, HHMI’s model identifies individuals with the talent to make high-impact discoveries.

HHMI investigators are employees of the Institute who work at more than 70 leading research institutions around the United States under collaborative relationships with those institutions. HHMI’s support gives them the freedom to take big risks, approach long-term questions, and change course, if that’s where the research takes them.

“We were looking for scientists of the same caliber as our most outstanding HHMI investigators, which includes 15 Nobel laureates,” says Graves. “We don’t have specific areas of research that we are looking to support. Instead, we want people who are tackling big problems, taking risks, and starting new fields. We’re looking for a style of science that we think can lead to groundbreaking discoveries.”

Jennifer Michalowski
HHMI Bulletin, Fall 2013

Return to main article >